06 September 2015

Easing into Eremitical Life: Is this the Way to Go?

[[Hi Sister Laurel, if I am interested in living an eremitical life is the best way to discern whether I am called to it to do it gradually, you know little by little and gradually become acclimated to silence and solitude? I am free to live the life but wonder what the best way to go about it is. I read the Carthusians ease their new postulants into the life.]]

That's a great question and one to which there isn't just one answer. Some people are not free to embrace a life of silence and solitude, assiduous prayer, penance and necessary withdrawal. They hope down the line to become hermits but are trying to live an approximation until then. In general I would say that these persons are preparing to discern such a vocation but are not yet doing so. For such a person my suggestions would be very different than they are for you or for anyone really seeking to discern such a vocation and are free to do so now. The most one can do without actually becoming a person trying to live an eremitical life (not an approximation of one) is to discern inclinations and desires, attractions and those things which repulse. But these things are not the vocation itself. It seems to me one has to embrace the whole of the life if one is really to discern whether God is calling one to this or not.

Let me explain, assuming one has a clear yearning for the life which one recognizes as a potential call of God and is free and financially able to respond but also "is not ready" to commit to really trying the life and discerning from within it whether one is called to it, then one is either not really called or one is resistant to what MAY be a call. Beyond the insistent desire for solitude and for prayer (that is, allowing God to love us and transfigure us on God's terms), or a sense of being intrigued by the writing of hermits like Wencel or Merton, et al --- things which may point to several different potential vocations --- I don't think we can discern a vocation from the outside. I especially don't think God will give us messages that say, "Yes, I am calling you to be a hermit (or not); get thee to a hermitage (or not)!" To wait or look for these unequivocal messages is probably futile. The true discernment of whether one is called or not can ONLY take place in the living of the life.

It is in fully embracing the elements of canon 603 (even for the lay hermit these elements are foundational) and then seeing how one does in this desert environment that allows a real process of discernment to occur. I hear all the time from people who are frustrated that they can't tell whether or not they are called to be a hermit. But more often than not when I ask about how they are doing with various aspects of the life the answers are, "Well, I am not really living in silence yet", "I am not living alone yet", "I'm only praying a few times a day; I don't want to be a fanatic", "I haven't modified any of my relationships or contact with others because I am afraid my friends and family won't understand", "I don't really think I should have to give up all TV and I only watch it for three hours a day," and similar things. Many of these are variations on the ideas 1) that what the desert Fathers lived or what anchorites in the middle ages lived, or even what Thomas Merton lived for a few years and wrote about profoundly can't possibly be relevant today, and 2) when canon 603 speaks of the silence of solitude, stricter withdrawal, and assiduous prayer and penance it can't really literally mean what it seems to say!!

In each of these instances the person sets up a compromise or series of compromises and evasions through which she basically fools herself into believing she is "discerning" eremitical life. In actual fact, such persons are still deciding if and when they will really discern this and in some cases have already decided not to really do so; they just haven't admitted the truth to themselves. In these cases there can be a tendency to call "eremitical" something which really is not that at all. There can also be a tendency to attribute doubt to the absence of a vocation (or of a sign from God) when in actual fact it is more likely to come from the person's profound sense they are going about things in a halfhearted and essentially unworthy way.

I think such situations are a bit like a person standing on the edge of a pool with the water lapping at their ankles, knees or even their waist while telling themselves they not sure they are capable of swimming. They simply are not going to be able to tell that until and unless they dive in and stop standing around. Similarly, it  may be a bit like a person paddling around in the shallow end of a pool while wearing water wings; for such a person to convince themselves they are discerning a call to swim in the Olympics is hardly accurate. Nor is such a discernment possible at this point. Doing so will take commitment to swimming long and hard. Of course if one finds they simply hate swimming after a few weeks or months the answer may be clear, but discerning a call to be an Olympic swimmer means being a swimmer first and giving oneself entirely to the sport.

The Carthusian Practice:

As you say the Carthusians do ease postulants then novices into the full rigors of Carthusian life but this does not mean the postulant or novice is gradually introduced to solitude, etc. They embrace life in cell but it takes time for them to be able to do the fasts or night watches and broken sleep. Their bodies must become acclimated and for this reason the Novice Master introduces them to these over a period of weeks and months with significant oversight and supervision. It is not like the postulant or novice keeps their cell phones with them for the first three months and then relinquishes these after a time, or leaves the Charterhouse regularly "until they get used to the solitude" the life demands. Nor is it the case that the kitchens prepare them a diet of meat, their favorite foods and other things they are used to for the first year and then weans them off of this thereafter. The novices may be gradually introduced to the rigor of Carthusian fasting, but they are eating as Carthusians from the get go.

My suggestion to you is that, with the assistance of your Spiritual director you simply take the plunge and begin living as a hermit. Know that it will be difficult and take time to learn what you need to know as well as to acclimate to all you are letting go of and embracing but take the plunge and persevere in this! Give yourself a year to really see if you can live this life and more, begin to thrive in it. If you and your director conclude you are doing well, write a Rule including the major components of every eremitical life tailored for the ways God works in your own life and heart, and make a private commitment to try living that for a set time period. (More detailed suggestions on this can be found in other articles on the relationship of writing a Rule and formation.) Continue meeting regularly with your director and discerning whether this really suits you and whether you are growing as a whole and holy human being. While your director cannot discern this vocation for you, she can give you frank feedback on how she sees things progressing or not. Sometime during this period I would suggest you make a silent retreat for at least 8 days to two weeks at a monastery where substantial silence is the Rule of the day, coupled with work, study, and liturgical and personal prayer. This  can give you an idea of what your own life really should look like --- though without the immediate communal dimension you will find there. You can experience others living as your own days should be lived and, given the absence of real silence in contemporary culture you can be exposed to that. It might be mind opening!

Be aware of how your prayer is doing. Ask yourself some serious questions. Is this really the way God works best in your life, speaks to your heart? Do you feel strong needs to serve God's People in other ways and if so, where do these come from? Are they the result of your growth in generosity and compassion via the eremitical life or do they represent a competing call? Do they stem from your insecurity with the value of contemplative and eremitical life or have you, at this early stage, come to trust more completely the value of eremitical life itself? After two to three years do you still feel a profound urge to live as a hermit? Has this sense deepened and lost the confusing sense of novelty that it first involved (is the honeymoon period really over?)? Are you still finding ways to compromise your commitments to silence, solitude, and the other sacrifices the life involves (everyone does this I think) or are you past this for the time being? How has your understanding of the life and your motives for embracing it changed in these years?

If this Goes Well

If this goes well and you find that after two to three years you can say you really believe solitude has opened her door to you and made her home in your heart, you might make another silent retreat. The questions (you are still discerning!!) now become about how you are being called to live this eremitical life for the rest of your life. Are you called to live it as a lay hermit --- just as the desert Fathers and Mothers did? Are you called to live it in a canonical community with someone like the Sisters of Bethlehem at Livingston Manor? Are you being called to live as a diocesan hermit with public vows and all those entail? Work with your director to explore these options and what dimensions of yourself they speak to most deeply or challenge most sharply. Then begin to take steps to pursue which ever path seems best. If you want to do a "come and see" period with a community of hermits find a way to do that. If you need to be sure you have a way of providing for yourself over the long haul in case you live as either a lay hermit or a diocesan (c 603) one, be sure to take care of this. I think you get the picture!

I should add that at this point you are preparing to enter a new and more intense period of discernment. If you decide on a community of hermits and are accepted for admission there will be a period of three years before you are admitted to temporary vows and as many as 6 more before admission to perpetual or solemn vows. If you decide to petition for admission to vows as a diocesan hermit and are accepted for a period of serious mutual discernment (not everyone is) it can take several years until the recommendation is made to admit you to temporary profession. (If you are well-prepared and the diocese is ready to profess c 603 hermits this may only be a year or two.) Once the recommendation to the Bishop is made it may take another year for the Bishop to do his own discernment and then, if this is positive, some time to get on the diocesan calendar for the actual rite of profession.

Admission to temporary profession under c 603 is usually for a period of from 3 to 5 years and then one may (or may not) petition and be admitted to perpetual profession. All of the time until perpetual  profession is properly considered a period of discernment and during all of this time one is expected to live as a hermit so that it may be discerned whether or not one thrives (becomes more whole and holy, compassionate and loving) in this vocation.

I sincerely hope this is helpful! Best wishes on your "adventure".